Labelling sexuality

Jo Boon explores the labels we put on people's sexual identities; both the problems they solve and the limitations they create. How would you describe your sexuality? Do labels convey what you want them to?


The labels we use to describe people's sexuality seem to keep on growing. It is common practice (and courtesy) to include a + sign at the end of any LGBT+ acronym, to ensure that no one is excluded. Not so very long ago, most people would have understood little more than the terms 'straight' and 'gay.' 

Of course, the picture is very different depending on where in the world you are, and who you are within it. For many of us in the UK, this seems like a time of exciting change and progression. I recently had the pleasure of attending the Pride weekend in Manchester, where thousands poured onto the street to celebrate and support one another.

You would have stood out far more in Manchester by not supporting LGBTQ+ rights, than by being one of the throng covered in glitter, rainbows and enthusiastically waving a flag. The few people holding anti- gay slogans were casually dismissed as 'nutters'. The 'Police for Pride' was one of the largest groups in the parade, with police officers of all genders coming forward to proudly express their identities or show support within the community. When you think that being gay is still illegal in so many countries, it is extraordinary to see so many police officers expressing their support for the LGBTQ+ community. 

This is just as it should be and, for many of us, we can feel the progress of the last couple of decades. Undoubtedly biphobia is still a huge issue that has to be faced, but at least we are talking about it. Trans rights are still sadly lacking but, from talking to my friends, there is a slowly growing awareness, even if tragically not the acceptance there should be. More and more people understand what I mean when I describe myself as 'pansexual.' Even asexuality, which seems to have been completely ignored for so long is creeping slowly into the limelight. 

I don't want to paint too rosy a picture, or speak for others, but for some of us at least 'coming out' is getting that little bit easier. Lets all hope that soon it won't be necessary. 

Increasingly we have a wide range of labels to 'choose from' and an awareness of what these terms mean. A study by Vice found that less than 50% of teenagers identified as straight. I am graduating next year and already it feels like the generation coming through after me are far more knowledgeable than I was at their age.

However, as we add more labels to the list, and give people more options I find myself left with the question: are these labels necessary? The terms 'straight' and 'gay' were certainly limiting, and did not reflect many people's identities, but is adding more labels to categorise the various shades of grey really helpful?   

Well, the simple answer is: yes for some people, and no for others. The subject can be theorised over, but to ignore individuals stories would be to undermine the debate in the first place. 

Some people like having a label that they can clearly express themselves with, and explain themselves to others. It is a rallying point for others with the same, or similar, identities. By identifying as 'bi' for instance, it becomes easier (in theory) to find other bi people who may have similar experiences. It saves having to explain your identity every time, as you can simply give a word. 

However, there is part of me that thinks no explanation should be necessary. People's private and romantic lives are not anyone else's concern. Would it not be easier to tell people who we are dating, rather than express our sexual attraction to a gender category? This would not benefit everyone, but it would benefit many who feel trapped by the labels that were supposed to liberate them. 

No matter how many words we add to the list, or combinations we use, or mini titles we create for ourselves - there will always be people who are not accurately represented. Language is a wonderful thing, but it is not rich enough to convey all of human experience - especially around such a complex subject. 

The LGBTQ+ movement has taken on many complex causes, and has done the most amazing things. Most of us, however, cannot be explained by a letter, or a label, or a cause. We fall in love with the most surprising people and change depending on the context we find ourselves in. Continually adding to the list of labels sometimes shows greater awareness, but sometimes it simply traps people still further. 

As the tagline of Label runs, Labels are for clothing : Labels are not for people. I stand by this, as even the labels we choose don't explain us entirely. However, the choice is crucial- do not force labels onto others or judge by the labels that they carry. We are all of us more than a label.